Food: Quantity, Quality, Timing, and Sequencing
There are many different ways to think about food. Unfortunately, the view that calories are all that matter continues to dominate most discussions.
Anyone who says calories don’t matter when it comes to fat loss is either ignorant of the vast amount of research showing it does, or is just denying it. These types have little credibility in discussions of weight loss and nutrition.
However, anyone who says calories are ALL that matter is equally ignorant of biochemistry, fat loss, and nutrition. Anyone making this claim is also lacking in credibility.
The truth? Both the quality and quantity of the food you eat matter. They’re both important. Which is more important is debatable.
Some people seem to do better by weighing and measuring everything. Others seem to do equally well by just eating more high quality foods more often. Those who do best likely attend to both.
Research and clinical experience show there are many factors to consider in terms of eating. What you eat (quality), how much you eat (quantity) and when you eat (timing) all play a role. Research is now showing one more factor that may help: meal sequencing – the order in which you eat your food.
Meal Sequencing and Preloads
Meal sequencing involves eating certain foods prior to others. This has been studied for years in terms of what research calls “preloads.” A preload is a food that’s eaten at some designated time before a meal. This could be a few minutes to an hour before.
The most common preloads are protein-based shakes and bars. A popular example: Drink a small protein shake 20-30 minutes before your regular meal.
Research has proven that preloads can be valuable fat loss aids in terms of controlling hunger. The problem is, preloads aren’t always available or convenient.
Preloading by the Plate
Researchers in a new study wanted to test the concept with a regular meal. They wanted to know if eating certain foods before others could confer some of the same benefits preloads do without the inconvenience, timing, and planning associated with the use of a traditional preload.
To test this, they had one group eat their meals the regular way. The “regular way” means the way most of us do it. We usually just sample around the plate and eat in the order that strikes us. The group eating this way was the control group.
The experimental group was instructed to eat their meat portion (protein and fat) first and their carbohydrate portion last.
The first thing to know about this study is that it was done on type-2 diabetics. What this tells us is that these individuals already had a strong degree of metabolic dysfunction. They were all also overweight to varying degrees.
I like studies that look at dysfunctional metabolic types. If it works for them, it’s likely to help healthier people as well. It means the intervention has a strong enough response to alter even damaged metabolic function.
Twenty participants were divided into two groups and prescribed a mild, low-calorie diet identical for each group. The eight-week diet was designed to provide a calorie deficit of 200 calories per day based on individual calculations for each participant.
The only experimental difference was in the instruction on how to eat those meals:
Control group: Follow the low calorie diet for eight weeks.
Experimental group: Follow the low calorie diet for eight weeks and eat protein/fat foods (meat, fish, cheese) before carbohydrate foods (pasta, rice, potatoes).
At the end of the study the results were pretty striking. Weight loss wasn’t different between the two groups, but FAT loss was. The group that sequenced their meals with protein and fat before carbs had significant reductions in fat mass while the control group did not.
What was most striking were the measures in metabolic function. The group changing the order of food they consumed saw significant reductions in all variables measured in regard to their ability to handle sugar.
As you know, diabetics lose the ability to burn sugar effectively. When blood sugar builds up it’s severely detrimental and can cause many issues including liver, kidney, and artery damage, dysfunction, and disease. To measure the severity of blood sugar effects, diabetics must monitor blood sugar regularly. These measures, before meals and after meals, significantly improved in only the group who changed the order of the food consumed.
In addition, a more superior measure of blood sugar levels, called hemoglobin A1c, measured average sugar levels over several months. These results were also significantly and positively impacted by eating foods in a specific order. The control group saw no such changes.
How to Use This Info
Why is this study important, and what does it tell us? It’s a small study, and to my knowledge, the first of its kind. This means we need to look at it with some level of caution.
However, given the large body of evidence on protein preloads and the well known effects of protein and fat in slowing glucose absorption, these results make very good sense.
In fact, it may surprise you to know that many savvy fat loss practitioners and coaches have already been using this technique for some time. It made intuitive sense based on what we knew about protein and preloads, and so many of us extrapolated the concept of food sequencing and used it.
My colleagues and I have advocated protein and fiber consumption (i.e. meat and non-starchy vegetables) ahead of starch consumption for some time. This has yielded very good clinical results for us.
That said, studies like this are needed to validate clinical practice and prove themselves as effective tools across the board. This study confirms the value of the practice. These participants were simply given a diet guideline in the way reading a diet book provides a guideline. They then went and lived their lives.
The fact that they saw results means this approach is doable in the real world. Doable solutions are the only solutions that matter in lifestyle change. A perfect program no one can do is not a perfect solution at all. In fact, it’s a waste.
I like this approach because it’s a very simple change that can have big-time, positive, metabolic effects. When you combine this information with eating the right amount and type of food, as well as timing meals to maximize satiety and satisfaction, you have the makings of a very powerful self-structured eating plan.
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to diet. You need to become a metabolic detective and build a plan that works for you. Experimenting with food sequencing could be another important component to consider.
For fat loss and improved metabolic health, choose one preload method below or use a combination of both:
Traditional Preload: Drink a protein shake before meals.
Plate Preload: Eat your protein, fats, and veggies first, then your starchy carbs.
Trico, et al. Manipulating the sequence of food ingestion improves glycemic control in type 2 diabetic patients under free-living conditions. Nutrition & Diabetes (2016) 6, e226; doi:10.1038/nutd.2016.33 Published online 22 August 2016